Not Paying NCAA Athletes Is Immoral – Here’s A Solution

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please [email protected].

This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Emily White:

Over the past few weeks, months and years, we have celebrated some of the best athletes in the world. This past year, Simone Manuel becoming the first woman to go 45 seconds in the 100 yard freestyle was especially powerful for me. We’ve had our emotions toyed with as basketball games such as Wisconsin vs. Florida resulted in multiple “buzzer beaters” over a single game. Caeleb Dressel may have put up an even more infamous swim than if he had gone 39 seconds: 40.00; .01 away from what swimmers would call SCY immortality.

Then we watched 5’5” Morgan Williams shoot her way into history with her game winning shot against the Goliath of college sportsthe previously undefeated UConn Huskies. I mean honestly, is there a greater moment in sports than what Morgan achieved for and with her team? I’d be hard pressed to name one.

Yet when I watch these world-class athletes, my excitement is intertwined with a sickening emotion—the understanding that these athletes aren’t paid. I’ve brought this up to family members who deeply care about athletes and love college sports. The common response – “But they’re getting an education.” Are they? According to HBO, 60 Minutes, and Joe Nocera of The New York Times, this isn’t always the case. Not to mention the athletes who get injured while playing for the NCAA, which can both end their career and leave the athlete on their own for future health care costs resulting from the injury. This isn’t just in the “big sports.” I personally know of at least one Olympic athlete who was unable to pursue her major / field of choice (which would greatly benefit her life and career now), because it conflicted with swim practice.

As a peace offering, let’s also state that plenty of athletes – myself included – did receive an education in exchange for committing to a college sports team for upwards of 30+ hours a week of training, travel and competitions. It is worth noting here that, as a respected artist manager in my professional career, I received my first ever ‘B’ in college in Artist Management class. Why? The class met once a week on the one night my team always had dual meets, which led to a lower grade than what my actual career would reflect.

The indentured servitude of NCAA athletes has been well documented. I personally find it uncomfortable to celebrate athletes that are legal adults whose sports’ organizations ban them from receiving any sort of money beyond expenses. Admittedly, I do not wish to be the person that untangles the billions of dollars that have been generated due to college athletes over the years. That said, in the indie music world – record labels split income 50/50 with the person(s) who creates the content (a.k.a. the artist). Which is what I’m going to propose here for my sport of swimming. A sport that is a microcosm of all other non-major sports both in the NCAA and beyond.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until now 6x Olympic medalist Missy Franklin opted to swim for UC-Berkeley for 2 years that it came to my attention that swimming is openly labeled a “non-revenue sport.” What better time is there to change that while lines were stretching around the block to get into swim meets to see Missy and her team of Olympians and National Teamers compete? Charge $5. Even better, charge a donation and have a Square reader to accept card payments. That way, other students who don’t necessarily have income can attend the meet, as can donors who want to actively and directly support the program they are spending their Saturdays cheering for. Plenty of young girls, boys, and parents would have bought Franklin, Bootsma, and Pelton Cal Tshirts and caps, similar to jerseys in other sports. Autograph sessions were set up for the athletes, which is nice, but that is even more time that the athletes are promoting their program and school, in lieu of training, studying, or working (with what little time they have left over) for some spending money.

What do we do with these new revenue streams? Simple: half goes to the swim team (or the sports program of the specific school that generated the revenue) and half goes to the athlete when the income is derived specifically because of their name. Totally fair for the stars, while giving the whole team financial benefits. And for the rest of us, who weren’t Olympic medalists in college, this provides additional goals to work towards.

These are two new revenue streams that will work and contribute to resource-rich storied college swim teams such as Cal, Stanford, Georgia, and others.

But what if you’re Mallory Comerford? The Louisville sophomore turned heads beyond the swimming world by tying Katie Ledecky to be crowned co-champion in the 200 Freestyle at last month’s Women’s NCAA Championships. Is Mallory supported by her program that is totally on the rise? Absolutely. Will they support her post-college, “post-grad?” Most likely. But having a place to train isn’t always enough.

What I’d like to see is for athletes like Mallory to be able to accept funds to further their swimming career post-college. I’m proposing that each school is represented by an agent, with the bigger school’s teams having individual agents. This is already in place, with almost all NCAA schools being represented by major agencies – my alma mater Northeastern University is repped by CAA – one the largest and most powerful talent agencies in the world. Each team/school’s agent is allowed to review (1) year offers to individual athletes as well as for the team. Why one year? To protect the interests of athletes like Lilly King, who was an NCAA champion as a freshman, who then became the global face for anti-doping by taking down her Russian rival on the world stage at the 2016 Rio Olympics. This way, athletes can re-up deals as they improve and aren’t tied to a decision they made their freshman year.

Same model here: 50% of funds go to the athlete’s individual sports’ team at their school—not the sports program at large and not the school at large. Naturally, schools can put into place (hopefully realistic) limitations so the athletes aren’t representing alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, or any other categories that might reflect poorly on the athlete, team, or school’s image.

If swimming is a “non-revenue” sport, why aren’t we already encouraging these obvious, viable, and otherwise wasted revenue streams? Additionally, with the average U.S. Olympic hopeful’s salary being $17,100/year, it is nothing short of atrocious to not allow these athletes to bank what they are offered. In swimming, I can tell you that many of the athletes and families would do exactly that. Many swimmers who graduate college have a choice to make on whether they want to keep going and pursue their Olympic dreams. Too many drop out because the insurmountable financial reality of making that choice is too much to bear, let alone overcome. Why are we preventing athletes from generating income that they can then use to train post-college, often when they need it most, as training is a full-time job. Which is why it’s difficult to be employed with a flexible schedule to support training—no matter the strength of one’s college degree.

Katie Ledecky will be fine. We put too much pressure on young athletes and their families to make the decision to “go pro” or not – ask Missy Franklin or Dagny Knutson. The swimming world loves to weigh in on what is/was the “right” or “wrong” decision for these young women. Why not eliminate at least one stressor from their life and let them compete in college AND receive the income that is offered to them. This would benefit both the individual and their team.

But these “big names” aside, I’m thinking more of the Mallorys or athletes even the biggest sports geek in the world hasn’t heard of. How do they keep going, starting from $0 as a college graduate, as someone who wants to keep going in their athletic career? Generating $10k – $100k/year while in college is only going to support the longevity of an athlete’s career, while simultaneously relieving some of the financial pressure on their families. Families, I might add, who are paying out of pocket to be there in person for their daughter or son’s conference and NCAA Championships, Nationals and Olympic Trials, World Championships, and The Olympics.

I want nothing more for athletes to be able to train and succeed with the freedom of mind of not having something like money hold them back. Implementing a 50/50, 1-year term model for athletes represented by agents appointed by their schools will allow athletes who aren’t household names yet (or ever) to have a solid base to live and train off of no matter when in the quadrennium their college career ends.

We applaud the athletes who “choose” to compete in college. Yet, I maintain that it is the NCAA’s loss for not allowing Michael Phelps to compete. Want swimming to be bigger? Wherever Michael would have chosen to swim (some may presume Michigan), would that team, program, school and the sport not have benefited? Want swimming to come out of the “non-revenue” category? The NCAA turning down the G.O.A.T. doesn’t seem to be the way to do so.

Which athletes’ families have the financial means to keep them going post-college should not determine who is the best of the best representing their country on the global stage. Beyond that, who doesn’t want to see Simone Manuel’s historic achievements celebrated further than they already are? Why shouldn’t she and her family generate some well-deserved income around her sports’ achievements? I know I’d love to see the commercials that could come from Morgan Williams’ game winning shot. Sinking a basket like that to eclipse 111-game winning streak while winning a game that takes your team to its first ever National Championship game, all while being the shortest player on the court, is what perseverance and sports’ dreams are made of. If anyone from a local coffee shop on Mississippi State’s campus to a National TV campaign wants to feature Morgan and pay her to do so, why should we hold her back?

Every year we fall in love with college athletes. I never want that 111-game winning streak ending shot to be an athlete’s career highlight, but there’s a good chance for all NCAA athletes competing that they might put up a career highlight between roughly the ages of 18-23. Why can’t we set them up to keep going in their 20’s and beyond?

Anything else is immoral.

Emily White is CEO of Dreamfuel, a funding platform for athletes. She was a Division I swimmer for Northeastern University and manages 2000, 2016 Olympic Champion Anthony Ervin and Head U.S. Olympic Women’s Swimming Coach David Marsh as a Co-Founding partner for Whitesmith Entertainment.

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7 years ago

This article is garbage. Swimmers and other Olympic sport athletes don’t bring in revenue. They are a drain on student fees. Their exploits are supported by and large by the tuition dollars of “NARP” students. THAT is immoral. They should be THANKFUL for anything they get – a scholarship is a 160,000 dollar “paycheck” they should be thankful to have.

Larry Buchanan
7 years ago

I want to support this article but it lacks an understanding of the true price of college athletics. Frankly, who cares about scholarships and the idea that that these athletes receiving an education. Who cares that swimming isn’t a “revenue-generating sport.”

Here’s the thing: 90% of college athletic programs operate in the red. That means about 10% draw some type of revenue and the rest don’t make money. Almost no program makes money. And when you start to look at the programs that are making money, it’s those who get large TV deals. Additionally, the NCAA is the real beneficiary. For example, look at the deal made with CBS and March Madness. We are talking a billion dollar deal. … Read more »

7 years ago

College athletes should not get paid because their is not enough money for schools to pay athletes only schools in the power 5 could receive payment but for the rest of college institutions a only a scholarship is given because the school can afford this because scholarship money goes right back to the institution #facts

7 years ago

From someone who completed my undergrade and Masters degree all while working a full time job, it can be done and you can get all A’s. So quit complaining and do what you have been RECRUITED to do, academics included.

7 years ago

Considering the cost of tuition at these colleges a free ride is plenty of reimbursement for participating in a college sport. The average student at Northwestern for example would pay roughly $330,000 once interest on the student loan is calculated for a four year education. Stanford would be roughly $370,000 for 4 years. All athletes face injury at any age and every level of play. That is the price of playing a sport. As for meeting class obligations…once you recieve your free, full ride tuition on a gold platter, what you select to do with it is up to you. There are students all over this country competing in high level competitions. All while attending courses from 8AM to 3PM… Read more »

Tammy Salami
7 years ago

I think it is almost more important that the opportunity or ability to get paid from outside sources such as brands, sponsors, signings, or commercial appearances is available. Example: the top athletes that ‘should’ get paid will have the highest earning potential anyway. These opportunities would be self-promoted or through an agent and these opportunities should be available to those that choose to do so.

I can see how this would separate the top tier schools from the middle and bottom, and I believe that this is one of the reasons why the amateurism rule exists (fair playing field). Times have changed and rules and laws should change alongside the current NCAA circumstances.

John Maravich
7 years ago

I find it amazing that someone who wrote a book supporting unpaid internships calls college sports immoral. To be clear, I’m in favor of college athletes being able to make money if they can, and participating in revenues they help derive. My issue is the total hypocrisy of someone who uses unpaid interns and wrote a book encouraging more people to work unpaid taking up the mantle for this. All unpaid work is not right.

Steve Nolan
7 years ago

Amateurism in college sports was just the topic of “Vice on HBO” this week, literally watched it today. CLICK ME IF YA WANNA WATCH. (For anyone as anti-amateurism as I am, it covers most of the same beats as in the articles linked in this post, as well as Taylor Branch’s landmark 2011 Atlantic piece. But it’s still good!)

Basically, the author is completely correct that it is immoral as hell to restrict the earnings potential of athletes. Vice talks to a running back out of Auburn who had to go pro after his sophomore year to support his family. His mom was literally homeless. Asked if he’d have stayed… Read more »